In his recent book The Captain Class, Wall Street Journal Editor Sam Walker profiles the greatest sports teams of all time and identifies the qualities that made them so successful. In doing so, he reveals the surprising “hidden force that creates the world’s greatest teams.”
Several coaches from Newark Academy’s Athletic Department had the opportunity to participate in a riveting discussion with Mr. Walker. He explained how, after identifying the top squads in history, he began the research process to determine which factors made those teams so successful. His initial hypothesis was that the presence of an all-time great player, a strong coach and vast financial resources contributed to great success. However, he quickly found that not all of those factors were present in all of his top teams. Rather, the common trait, he discovered, was the presence of a great team captain: a player who led on the field and in the locker room and whose model inspired his or her teammates to achieve lofty heights.
“Balancing the many personalities on the team can be challenging, especially making sure chemistry- wise that we are playing as one team and not as 11 individuals. But at the end of the day, you love your teammates – we are a close-knit group and trust each other, which bodes well for a successful season.”
– Brady Sheaffer ’18
The fact that team captains are critically important to a team’s success was not a surprise to our coaches. Every team at NA employs team captains, and while there is no single model for choosing them, most squads use some combination of players’ and coaches’ input. For some teams, like softball, the players select one captain while the coaches choose the other. For the most part, captains are senior student athletes, but underclassmen have at times been selected. Current junior Amit Kundra, for instance, was chosen as a captain of the track team last spring.
“I want the captain to be my voice on the field,” boys’ varsity soccer coach James Morris says. And indeed, most coaches are looking for captains who can be extensions of themselves, both on and off the field, in season and throughout the school year. Appropriate modeling on behalf of team captains is particularly important, as fewer and fewer NA coaches work full time at the school. Captains are increasingly handling larger communication and planning roles in the absence of those coaches. Meghan Tavormina (girls’ lacrosse) and Sergio Rodriguez (softball), both spring coaches, use their captains to help plan the spring trip and to keep the athletes motivated and on track during the off-season.
“My main role as a captain is to set an example for the rest of the team – whether that be focusing up during practice or holding my head up after a tough loss. I want to lead by my example and keep my team motivated.”
– Cosimo Fabrizio ’18
What sort of players fit the bill? Coaches listed the following traits: grit, commitment, positive attitude, respect for teammates and the sport, dedication to the program, work ethic, the ability to hold teammates accountable for their efforts, and even the tactical savvy to organize players during games. Asked to identify standout past captains, coaches are quick to name players who exemplified the traits they value. Coach Tavormina identified Kim McGrath ’16 and Abby ’14 and Lauren ’14 Whelan, as “athletes who did everything for the team without seeking any personal glory.”
Coach Morris echoed the importance of those selfless qualities when he recalled the leadership of Nick Williams ’13. “Nick clearly stood out as the best player on the team but was so humble he made all the other players feel as though they were as good as he was. This proved critical because Nick was smart enough to see that our team was only as good as our weakest player, so he would work with our weaker players and help them become better.” It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Nick, as well as former wrestling, football and lacrosse captain Michael Kay ’99 and baseball captain Anthony Giachin ’17, chose to attend that noted incubator of leadership, the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“Being a strong leader is my main role as a captain. A captain is supposed to be the glue that holds the team together. If the glue is not strong, then the team will fall apart.”
– Alexa Madsen ’18
Preparing captains for the role has been challenging over the years because of busy schedules and the numerous commitments of our students. Most coaches support their captains with individual preparatory meetings and with ongoing communication over the course of the season. Some NA captains have attended leadership workshops at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair and classes offered by the Super Essex Conference. In 2017, NA initiated a three-year partnership with the Positive Coaches Alliance (PCA), which offers leadership workshops designed to emphasize the character-building aspects of sports. In these workshops, captains will learn specific techniques for facilitating continuous improvement in their sports and for seizing opportunities to encourage and support teammates. The PCA encourages competing fiercely to win – but only within an ethical context of honoring the game. The program should prove to be a critical tool in NA’s development of dynamic student leaders.
Team captains are a critical component of the success of NA athletics, and being a team captain is a terrific opportunity for students to develop leadership skills. Organizing team activities, leading off-season workouts, helping teammates to bond, and rallying spirits in trying times are all activities that force captains to experiment in developing their own leadership styles and to get outside of their comfort zones. Certainly, team captains leave NA having had an authentic leadership experience that will serve them well throughout their lives.